This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of The Tropenbos Foundation
in Wageningen, The Netherlands ( www.tropenbos.org) . The citation information for the
original article is:
Forte, Janette. (1999) Emerging Local and Global Discourses on NTFP use and study: a
view from Guyana. Seminar Proceedings, 'NTFP Research in the. Tropenbos
Programme: Results and Perspectives' , 28 January 1999 (M.A.F. Ros-Tonen, ed.), 33-
43. The Tropenbos Foundation, Wageningen, the Netherlands.
The pagination from the original source has been preserved below. Minor modifications
have been made to the footnotes.
NTFP research in the Tropenbos programme: Results and perspectives - p. 33
EMERGING LOCAL AND GLOBAL DISCOURSES
ON NTFP USE AND STUDY: A VIEW FROM
Janette Bulkan Forte MA
Amerindian Research Unit, University of Guyana/Tropenbos-Guyana Programme
On 22 November 1998 I sat in on a Village Meeting in Sebai, a Mixed Amerindian
community of about 230 persons (Warau/Carib/Arawak), located about 12 miles up a
creek of the same name and some 22 miles distant from the sub-regional centre of Port
Kaituma. The Captain was accused of poor administration of village resources, including
marketable logs and palm hearts.
One villager announced that people from the Aruka River were increasingly coming over
to cut palm hearts (Euterpe oleracea) in the Yakirikat Creek, which formed one boundary
of Sebai's titled land, and asked what the Captain was doing about that. The Captain's
response was succinct: for all his pains on behalf of the village, he received a monthly
stipend of G$ 2,800 (equiv. US$ 16) from the Government. For that pittance, would he
also have to be a watchman in the distant Yakirikat Creek area? He also pointed out that
the Aruka 'cabbage cutters' would invariably claim that they were cutting down palm
trees located on the State-owned bank of the Yakirikat River, not over on the village side.
Since no Sebai households were sited in the area, who was there to dispute the Aruka
A major part of Sebai folk came over originally from the Aruka River and the
communities continue to be closely linked by ties of consanguinity and affinity. No
doubt, a large number of palm hearts are harvested illegally from Sebai's titled area, but
the bad guys in this instance are family and friends, all as poor as the Sebai villagers.
Village administration in Sebai can be said to be non-existent and the same is probably
true of the Aruka River settlements.
Stories such as this illustrate the complex world in which discussions of NTFPs take
place. In a thoughtful introductory piece entitled 'Whose Knowledge, Whose Genes,
Whose Rights?' Stephen B. Brush concluded:
'Effective conservation cannot be planned or accomplished without addressing the issues
of poverty, domination and exploitation. Nevertheless, these problems are centuries old in
most places. Understanding them strains the modest theoretical and methodological tools
of social science. Solving them is beyond the grasp of the available political tools. Yet
the value of human life, cultural diversity, and biological resources is so great that we
cannot shirk from the challenge of finding viable conservation methods. The press of
The Tropenbos Foundation, Wageningen, the Netherlands - p. 34
population growth and the urgency of protecting human dignity make this challenge as
difficult as any intellectual or political challenge in the modern world' (1996: 18).
It is precisely such a challenge that a seminar such as this one takes up, focussing on the
indigenous management of forest resources in the interests of both equity and
conservation. This paper examines some of the emerging discourses, local and global, on
NTFP use and study. The context includes such factors as advances in biotechnology, the
establishment and consolidation of supranational institutions, particularly since the
1990s, designed to regulate international flows of 'natural capital'; an increasing
acceptance of indigenous rights and wider recognition of the link between cultural and
2. THE CARIB STUDY AREA
Sebai village is located in the upper Kaituma/Barima/Barama watershed area, in which
the Carib Studies Programme is being carried out by three Tropenbos-sponsored
researchers, including myself. My own research focus is not primarily directed at the
knowledge or use of NTFPs by the indigenous inhabitants of this area, but rather at the
geopolitical and socio-economic processes that have shaped indigenous life in the Carib
One of the surprises of my research so far has been the realisation that this population has
not been, either in this or the last century, strictly peripheral to the dominant colonial
(later independent) society. Exposure to gold (and, later, manganese) mining has left its
stamp on all facets of indigenous life, so that here, as elsewhere, the global dimensions of
modern life are all-pervasive - in patterns of consumption and recreation, in the
willingness of a significant number to seek out industrial labour, in some cases even
bonded labour, 1 in preference to subsistence life, and the widespread interest in the
fluctuations of the gold price on the London Stock Exchange (see the discussion of
'modernity' in, for example, Miller ).
The principal subsistence and commercial NTFP in the Port Kaituma/Sebai area is
wildlife, including fish, a finding in line with van Andel's comprehensive study in the
wider North West District (1998). At the same time, I met very few Amerindians in the
Port Kaituma/Sebai area who would admit that they used 'bush medicines,' in answering
one of the questions I posed to over 150 heads of household during my last period of
fieldwork. In an area of endemic malaria, where most people had suffered recurring bouts
of malaria annually since the upsurge in the early 1980s, still the majority insisted that
they used only modern pharmaceutical preparations. 'We don't know anything about
bush,' as if knowledge of herbal remedies was a yardstick to measure savagery.
There is often, of course, a chasm separating what people do from what they profess to
do, and this is where the lived experience of the field worker has its justification. In the
case of the
NTFP research in the Tropenbos programme: Results and perspectives - p. 35
Kaituma/Sebai area, the attitudes stated by Amerindians to the use of bush medicines can
be understood in relation to:
- the considerable population of non-Amerindian Guyanese (and now non-Guyanese
Asians) in the townships of Port Kaituma and Matthews Ridge, forming a social and
- the traditional antipathies to Amerindians expressed by the other ethnic groups;
- the establishment of well-equipped hospitals, accessible to all, in Matthews Ridge and
Port Kaituma by the manganese company in the early 1950s; and
- the fact that malaria is not an indigenous disease.
It is in scenarios like this one that outsider-led research projects into NTFPs, for example,
can play and have played key roles in coalescing cultural revitalisation, a revaluation of
indigenous knowledge and an awareness of the potential marketability of such knowledge
3. NTFP RESEARCH AND EXPLOITATION IN GUYANA
Reinders' ethno-medicinal investigation in the Barabina area of the North West (1993)
was probably the first of the post-1990 NTFP projects in Guyana. It was followed by the
study of palm heart harvesting in the North West District made by Dennis Johnson for the
Amerindian Research Unit of the University of Guyana (in Forte, 1995) and a study
carried out in the Mixed Arawak village of Kurupukari (now Fair View) by Johnston and
Colquhoun (1996). Then, almost simultaneously, projects were executed by van Andel
and collaborators in the North West (from 1996), the Foundation for Ethno-biology in
Surama (from 1995) , GEF-UNDP-Iwokrama , also in the North Savannahs (see Forte,
1996), and Hoffman (1997), who worked with the liana nibi.
Also ongoing in this period has been the Conservation International (CI) work on
developing a balata (Mimusops globosa) handicraft industry, aimed at the tourist trade
and the 'fair trade' export niche, the setting up of an NGO called the Amerindian
Handicraft Association and, more recently, of the Handicraft Industrial Development
Agency (HIDA) and the establishment of a number of medium and small-scale factories
making nibi and cufa furniture. During 1997 and 1998, CI teamed up with Hoffman to
explore the possibilities of working with a regional Amerindian grouping named the
Region Two Coordinating Committee on the sustainable utilisation of lianas used in the
furniture and handicraft trade (see Verheij and Reinders 1997). A number of exploratory
meetings were held and a two-day workshop brought together harvesters from several
different areas with resource persons from CI and the Amerindian Research Unit.
The largest commercial NTFP exploited is the palm heart, on which at least three studies
have been made, and an excellent monograph has been produced (van Andel et ah, 1998).
Although it is not exhaustive, the brevity of this list underlines the point that the study
and use of NTFPs in Guyana is still in its nascent stage. Nonetheless, a number of issues
have already emerged, including the following:
3.1 The Darwin Initiative-funded project of the Foundation for Ethno-
biology in Surama
The Tropenbos Foundation, Wageningen, the Netherlands - p. 36
This project began in 1995 as a partnership between the U.K.-based Foundation for
Ethno-biology (FEB) and the Surama community. The 'Surama Resource Centre', called
'FEB' locally, was built in the centre of the village and stocked with some pieces of
equipment, including a small generator, portable computer and printer and, for a while, a
satellite telephone. The project also owned a motor cycle. The three full-time staff of the
FEB were salaried, as were at least two other local principals, one in Annai and the other
in Surama. Two of the full-time staff were data processors, but other persons were hired
to collect and dry samples of various plants, which were shipped out of Guyana at various
This project was started before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was set up,
which might account for the dearth of knowledge at the regional and national levels of
what exactly was happening in Surama. The only counterparts seemed to be a few
individuals within Surama, but since they were key local leaders, the project was never
subject to any scrutiny either within or outside the village.
The patenting of active ingredients of the greenheart seed, one of which he named
'rapununine,' and of the fish poison called 'kunami' by the London-based principal, Dr.
Conrad Gorinsky, eventually came to light in Guyana and was publicly condemned, at
least in the capital city. Gorinsky also set up a biotechnology company named Biolink,
which has at least one Surama principal. The case was also publicised internationally,
which perhaps contributed to the withdrawal of funding for the project by the Darwin
Foundation (see the home page of RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International)
based in Canada: http://www.rafi.ca) .
Even though some awareness of the controversy which had developed around the project
internationally filtered down to the village level, the absence of public censure of the
principal was more in keeping with Amerindian mores. The local opinions I was aware of
ranged from total ignorance of the project's aims and modus operandi, to gratitude for
some jobs and training, to the feeling that Gorinsky was being demonised by larger, ill-
understood forces, perhaps because he was part Amerindian. Some people outside
Surama and within the larger region were more readily critical of the Surama operation,
but few seemed to know what it had entailed anyway.
Locally, people did not have strong feelings at first, but over time, with increasing
interest aroused on the issue, particularly as a result of the Iwokrama programme, the
words 'intellectual property rights' invariably came up at every public discussion (over
20 of them, in eight communities) that I attended.
3.2 The Iwokrama-sponsored project on biodiversity use and ethnobotany
During this same time period, I was coordinating a biodiversity project in this same
region on behalf of Iwokrama, which involved researchers and others of the same village.
At that time, the view held by key Surama leaders was that the Iwokrama-sponsored
project would steal their knowledge, while the Gorinsky-led one was grounded in Surama
and would benefit them. Over time, however, Gorinsky stopped visiting, some of the
equipment broke down, and the FEB project lost momentum. Village interest, here as
elsewhere in the North Savannahs, shifted to the collaborative management of natural
resources in partnership with the Iwokrama programme (see North Rupununi District
Development Board [NRDDB] and Iwokrama, 1998). Earlier local views on either
project became irrelevant as against the immediate benefits derived, and as the whole
issue of valuing local knowledge was more deeply explored.
Some time after the end of my own work with the Makushi Women's Project, Iwokrama
arranged a formal consultation with the NRDDB to discuss the issue of copyright of the
information contained in the two Reports it had commissioned. Copyright belonged to the
UNDP and the
NTFP research in the Tropenbos programme: Results and perspectives - p. 37
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which had jointly financed the project, but was formally
transferred to the NRDDB. The reports are to be published soon in one volume with a
formal copyright claim by the NRDDB as publisher. Iwokrama has also been extending
its links and outreach beyond the NRDDB to encompass the entire Rupununi. A two-day
'Outreach Workshop' for some 200 persons was held in Lethem, the regional centre, on
January 20-21, 1999, to discuss issues of development and conservation and networking
with the Iwokrama programme.
3.3 The COICA meeting in Georgetown
In mid- 1996, the Fifth Congress of the Coordinating Secretariat of Organisations of
Indigenous People from the Amazon (COICA), held in Georgetown, Guyana, passed a
resolution about the patent registered by a U.S. citizen, Loren Miller, for the processing
and commercialisation of ayahuasca, a sacred plant from the Amazon. Miller is the
owner of the International Plant Medicine Corporation, a pharmaceutical laboratory with
headquarters in the United States. COICA's vigorous reaction to Mr. Miller's action led
to a correspondence, strong and polemical on COICA's part, between them and the
funding agency, which was widely publicized internationally. The issue received more
international and local publicity in early 1998 than it did at the time, and it was and still is
most certainly being publicised locally by indigenous organisations, particularly the
Association for the Amerindian Peoples Association (APA), the local affiliate of COICA.
In part, both the Gorinsky-led project and the fall-out from the COICA resolution have
accelerated local ventilation of the issues of biodiversity and the privatisation and
commoditisation of nature and social knowledge. There certainly increasing recognition,
if not understanding, of buzzwords like IPR (Intellectual Property Rights), CBD
(Convention on Biological Diversity), bioprospecting and biopiracy, even in remote
indigenous communities. It would not be overstating the case to say that any future
project concerned with NTFPs or more general biodiversity research will be much more
closely examined at the local level, whatever might be the view taken by the players in
the capital city, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Some of these future projects may well choose to ignore local responses once the
necessary state permissions have been secured, but even if their primary objectives have
more to do with employment opportunities for foreign-based researchers, their conduct
should still take into account how they are viewed by the host community.
4. THE INTERNATIONAL SITUATION
The Convention on Biological Diversity was launched at the 1992 UNCED 'Earth
Summit' in Rio de Janeiro, focussing attention, both worldwide and in Guyana, on the
precarious situation of the planet's remaining biodiversity. A number of authors has
analysed the diverging interests of North/South, developed/developing, in what was from
the start a contested arena, 'nature', and in which there is still no consensus on
definitions, goals, the reasons behind the dwindling of biodiversity or how best to
manage what biodiversity is left.
On this battle front, writers such as Nijar (1996), McAfee (1999), Purdue (1995), and
Zerner (1996) argue that 'Northern' interests have focussed on carbon emissions that
contribute to global warming, the need to preserve some tropical forests as carbon sinks
(by selling carbon credits), the need to slow the rate of species extinction, and the
reconceptualisation of nature as a world currency, and of biodiversity as tradable genetic
resources, (see Articles 1, 15(7) and 19(2).
The Tropenbos Foundation, Wageningen, the Netherlands - p. 38
of the Convention on Biological Diversity). This without any reference to environmental
limits to growth, the historical and spatial inequalities within and between nation states,
or to any 'Southern' agenda. In McAfee's words:
'The 1990s have seen the establishment of supranational institutions designed to regulate
international "environmental investments" and the transboundary flows of natural
resources, including genetic information and knowledge about nature. These structures of
eco-economic governance include environmental treaties, especially the Framework
Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Global
Environment Facility, among others. These new multilateral institutions work closely
with the World Bank, with United Nations agencies that have taken up green agendas and
with mainstream conservationist organisations, many of which now embrace international
mandates. . . [They] recast the popular environmentalist account of the spoiling of Eden
by industrialism run amok into a parable of policy failures correctable by market
solutions. The key to those market solutions, according to the theory, is the privatization
and commoditisation of nearly every aspect of nature, from molecules to mountainscapes,
from human tissues to the earth's atmosphere' (1999, in press).
4.1 World Trade Organisation/Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights
Even before the CBD was opened for signing in Rio, the commoditisation of nature was
underway in the TRIPS negotiations. Although the 'South' argued that intellectual
property rights were not a trade issue at all and was already covered by an existing UN
organisation, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), key Northern
interests were able to shift Intellectual Property Rights negotiations to the General
Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which led to the establishment of the World
Trade Organisation in 1995. Article 27 of the WTO/TRIPS (GATT: 379-80) obliges
member states to enact IPR legislation within a prescribed time.
'In summary, countries are obliged to enact legislation which (1) reproduces the IPR
regime of industrialised countries, in particular the USA; (2) extends patenting to micro-
organisms and 'modified' life forms; and (3) obliges nations to provide patents or other
forms of protection to plant varieties' (Nijar, Paper 2: 8).
These clauses in Article 27 allow biotechnology to patent any genetically modified
organism, since DNA is not considered to be an essentially biological process. At this
point, enter the bio pirates, recently featured on the cover of TIME magazine (November
30, 1998). In TIME's words [Gene Piracy]:
'The confrontation between industrialised countries and resource-rich emerging nations is
heating up. Drug companies have been methodically testing animals and medicinal plants
for decades. But now, innovations in genetic research are enabling scientists to cast a far
wider net - covering entire rain forests. . . in their search for cures. "We see a tremendous
battle shaping up", says Andrew Kimbrell, director of the International Center for
Technology Assessment in Washington. The fight, he says, will be fought in part over
how to revise world trade laws. Some Western countries want to exempt plants and
animals from being covered by international property rights. 'Third World countries',
says Kimbrell, 'are certain to object.' The Convention on Biodiversity, drafted in 1992, is
the closest the world community has come to tackling the dispute. But there is no
consensus. The U.S., which has the greatest number of biological research labs, refuses to
ratify the convention. 'Congress blocked it', Kimbrell says, 'because there's a certain
NTFP research in the Tropenbos programme: Results and perspectives - p. 39
element opposed to all international environmental efforts. They feel it limits U.S.
options.' (McGirk, 1998).
Few knowledgeable writers foresee any benefits for indigenous peoples from global
trends in IPR legislation (Daly, 1996; Patel, 1996). The economist Herman Daly, at a
public lecture at the Institute for Social Studies in The Netherlands in September 1996,
argued against free trade and capital mobility (this went unheeded, since Brazil is even
now in free fall), and the myth (also stated in the CBD) that natural resources can
simultaneously be 'conserved' and 'sustainably used'. According to Daly:
1. Many nations have grown to the point that the limiting factor in their further growth or
development is no longer man-made capital but remaining natural capital. . . [and]
therefore seek to appropriate whatever natural capital remains in the international
commons, and to trade for natural capital with those less-developed countries still willing
and able to supply it. . . But of course all countries cannot be net importers of natural
capital... For the aggregate of all countries net imports of anything, including natural
capital, are zero (p. 4).
2. Free trade tends to push the world economy to grow beyond its optimal scale relative
to the containing ecosystem... creates the illusion that by making natural capital more
available to some nations, trade is capable of making it more available to the aggregate of
nations (p. 4).
3. To avoid wars, nations must consume less and become more self-sufficient. Yet free
traders say we should become less self-sufficient and more globally integrated as part of
the overriding quest to consume ever more. It is the worst advice I can think of (p. 13).
5. THE NATIONAL SITUATION
In the post-CBD period, the Guyanese State, with financial and other support from the
Global Environmental Facility and other multilateral agencies, passed the Environmental
Protection Act (6 May 1996), and subsequently established the Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA), charged among other things with regulating research in NTFPs. All of the
NTFP projects mentioned above were carried out before the formation of the EPA,
although the majority had to be approved by various Government agencies, including the
Office of the President.
Legal summaries of the status of IPR in Guyana (Scotland, 1996; Khan, 1998) concur
that IPR related legislation in Guyana is hopelessly outdated and that the current situation
affecting trade mark and patent applications is in crisis. According to Khan:
'To illustrate the extent of this crisis, my firm has quite a large amount of trade mark and
patent applications which have been filed since 1992 (some even earlier) which have not
been processed. In terms of numbers, we have - as at the end of 1996 - approximately
1,140 outstanding applications to register Trade Marks in Part A of the Register;
approximately 1 12 Part C Trade Mark applications; and approximately 1,068
miscellaneous applications, such as assignments, mergers, changes of names and
addresses, searches and renewals. We also have approximately 45 Patent applications
pending... In the face of this disastrous situation... we sign treaties, we become members
of international intellectual property organisations, we hold various internationally
attended workshops, symposia and conferences pontificating on the virtues of and respect
for intellectual property rights, while those of us who do daily battle in the proverbial
trenches of the Trade Marks and Patents Registry cannot even get a single trade mark or
patent registered' (Khan, 1998:43-44).
The Tropenbos Foundation, Wageningen, the Netherlands - p. 40
If top legal firms based in the capital are frustrated with the non-functioning of the Deeds
Registry, poor and powerless indigenous groups located in the distant hinterlands areas of
Guyana who might be thinking of approaching the national bodies charged with
regulating IPR related issues, would probably fare worse. The crisis in the Deeds
Registry of Guyana, however, is irrelevant to Gorinsky-type bioprospectors who move
directly to the Patent Offices of developed countries to register their finds.
Few of the knowledgeable people working in this area, however, are sanguine about the
chances of secure IPR reversing the poverty of indigenous and other people who still
possess valuable local knowledge. McAfee points out that no nation has become
developed from the sale of primary commodities, that such groups/nations start out from
a weak base anyway, and that 'meanwhile, the international 'market price' of genetic
resources is falling from its already low level, and biotech firms are patenting far more
molecules than they have any idea of whether or how they'll ever 'develop' ('drift net
patenting'). So IPR claims and market deals won't do a whole lot for most
local/indigenous groups' (pers. comm.).
The link between NTFP development and biodiversity conservation/equity in the pre-
CBD era rose to prominence with the extractive reserves associated with the
anthropologist Mary Allegretti and local leader Chico Mendes in the late 1980s.
Throughout these years, activists and others have argued bitterly over the wisdom of this
course, those against arguing that drawing poor people even closer into market relations
would only lead to their further long-term impoverishment, while diverting scarce
resources from the struggle for land and other fundamental rights. This debate was
perhaps most sharply drawn in the exchange between Survival International's Stephen
Corry versus Cultural Survival's Jason Clay, the former arguing that a focus on
marketing products like Rainforest Crunch, or extracting products for 'The Body Shop'
furthered the underdevelopment of traditional peoples (Corry, 1993).
Prominent organisations in this field, like the Malaysian-based Third World Network,
incline more to Corry' s view, but take the realistic position that since they probably
cannot change the terms of the exchange in the short run, they might as well draw up
draft contracts which can be used by governments and/or indigenous peoples vis a vis
collectors of biological resources (Nijar, Paper 1). Certainly the people themselves - in
Sebai, the Rupununi, and elsewhere - want information on tradable items, including
NTFPs, now (see statement of the Chairman of the NRDDB in Iwokrama 1998: 4).
Increasingly, however, they will insist on partnership arrangements, and on the drawing
up of contracts for sharing profits generated as a result of their knowledge. From their
position of relative powerlessness, they probably will have to rely more on goodwill than
the acuity of their lawyers. However, Tropenbos researchers can be guided by the
growing consensus that the best way to save what remains of biological diversity is to
work alongside the remaining pockets of cultural diversity, the world's traditional
NTFP research in the Tropenbos programme: Results and perspectives - p. 41
1 . Bonded labour is a form of debt-peonage which exists in the North West District, in
which the worker is seldom or never paid in cash for his work. Instead he is advanced
goods by his employer, so that many labourers find themselves unable to free themselves
from contractual obligations to the employer (cf 'the system of aviamento in the article of
Assies (this volume) or endeude in the paper by Rodriguez and Van der Hammen (this
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Janette Bulkan is a member of the editorial board for KACIKE: The Journal of Caribbean
Amerindian History and Anthropology, as well as the Caribbean Amerindian Centrelink
( www.centrelink.org) . More information on the author is available on the CAC's
Directory of Researchers .
Please cite this article as follows:
Bulkan, Janette. (2004). Emerging Local and Global Discourses on NTFP Use and Study:
A View From Guyana. KACIKE: The Journal of Caribbean Amerindian History and
Anthropology [On-line Journal]. Available at:
http://www.kacikejournal.wordpress.com/BulkanTropenbosB.html [Date of access: Day,
Or, use the original citation at the top of this page.
© 2004. Janette Bulkan. All rights reserved.